Saturday, Oct. 29, 2011 | 9:33 p.m.
The coach flashed his trademark grin and jokingly told the room of local media he’d have an answer for them next week.
You can’t blame the coach for not wanting to bring more stress into his day. He was still trying to digest the Rebels’ 38-35 come-from-behind victory against Colorado State, smiling from ear to ear after his young team rallied in the final minutes.
UNLV led the visiting Rams by 11 points early in the fourth quarter in front of 12,431 fans at Sam Boyd Stadium, only to surrender 15 unanswered points and lose the lead with four minutes to play. For a Rebels squad riding a three-game losing streak and short on confidence, the deficit could have been a disaster.
But it wasn’t.
Sophomore quarterback Caleb Herring, whose struggles this season included a game with just one completion and another where he had three interceptions returned for touchdowns, didn’t play like a signal caller who had lost his starting job three weeks ago.
Herring led the Rebels 68 yards on an eight-play drive, capped by a 5-yard touchdown run with 1:20 to play for the game-winning points. He was smooth, confident and never panicked in briskly leading the Rebels down the field.
“We are thrilled to win. I’m excited for our players,” Hauck said. “They have showed a lot of character and a lot of toughness. They have worked hard and they deserve to win. I’m thrilled for our players.”
Herring completed 9-of-13 passes for 90 yards and two touchdowns, replacing starter Sean Reilly by design in the first quarter and never exiting the game. Despite Reilly throwing an interception that was returned for a touchdown on his last pass, Hauck said the plan was to have Herring enter the game as planned after the Rebels’ second series.
It was too early to talk about game planning for the seemingly impossible task of beating Boise State, but Hauck did reveal one important detail for next Saturday’s home game: Herring, after two games coming off the bench, will be back as the UNLV starter.
“Caleb is a guy that, whether it is as the starter or not, has prepared like the starter, just like any good player in his position does,” Hauck said. “He showed up tonight. That just shows who he is. He has a lot of good character.”
Rebel quarterbacks entered with just five touchdowns and less than 800 yards passing in six games. They only passed for 117 yards against Colorado State, but the completions came at the right time and perfectly complemented a rushing attack that tallied 244 yards.
“I don’t know if it was confidence lacking. It just felt like I needed to slow down and relax,” Herring said of his past struggles. “A lot of times at quarterback, you know what is going to happen and you see it, but when it comes to executing it at the snap, that is the hardest part.”
Herring threw touchdowns of 7 and 31 yards to Phillip Payne, giving the senior from Western High in Las Vegas a school-best 25 touchdown receptions for his career. The 7-yarder was seconds before halftime to give UNLV a 17-13 lead at the break and tie Payne with Henry Bailey (1991-94) on the school’s all-time list at 24 touchdown receptions.
As the UNLV quarterbacks struggled the past two weeks, so did Payne in hauling in only one pass. Breaking the record was nice and something Payne cherishes, but doing so in a victory was even sweeter.
“It feels good. It feels even better to get it with a win,” Payne said.
He wasn’t the lone Rebel with a team-first attitude. With a 2-5 overall record and a tough schedule the rest of the season, the Rebels’ streak of not reaching a bowl game will most likely continue to 11 seasons. But the older players are taking pride in doing what they can to help the program take steps to grow.
Senior defensive lineman James Dunlap had two sacks and 4.5 tackles for loss in arguably his finest collegiate game. He helped spark a defense that bended at times, but didn’t break in creating three turnovers and twice stopping Colorado State on fourth down attempts.
“I only have now five games left in my career. I wanted to step up the rest of the season and leave something behind for these young guys to follow,” Dunlap said.
One of those younger players is freshman running back Dionza Bradford, who led the Rebels with 122 yards rushing on 21 carries and his first career touchdown run — a 1-yard plunge in the fourth quarter to give UNLV a 31-20 lead with 11:35 remaining.
Colorado State was quick to erase the deficit, taking advantage of a blocked field goal attempt and long return to lead 35-31 with 4:06 to play.
“That was disheartening at the time, but you don’t have time to think about that,” Hauck said of giving up the lead. “You have four minutes left in the game, so off you go.”
It seemed like another way to lose for a UNLV team all too familiar with poor performances. But, to the players’ credit, they didn’t flinch in winning the game.
It’s a victory that will surely give them momentum. Enough momentum to give Boise State a battle? Well, we’ll have to wait until next week for that answer.
“I really don’t pay that much attention,” Hauck jokingly said about Boise State. “We’ll figure that out over the weekend.”